Flatfoot deformity is a general term used to describe a person whose arches are slowly dropping to the ground, aka fallen arches. Adult-acquired flatfoot deformity can be caused by several factors, but the most common is abnormal functioning of the posterior tibial tendon in the foot and ankle. The posterior tibial tendon is the primary tendon that supports the arch. If this tendon begins to elongate from a sustained, gradual stretch over a long period of time, then the arch will progressively decrease until full collapse of the arch is noted on standing. What makes this tendon elongated? Biomechanical instability of the foot such as over-pronation or an accessory bone at the insertion site of the tendon are the primary causes for posterior tibial tendon dysfunction.
Posterior tibial tendon dysfunction is the most common cause of acquired adult flatfoot deformity. There is often no specific event that starts the problem, such as a sudden tendon injury. More commonly, the tendon becomes injured from cumulative wear and tear. Posterior tibial tendon dysfunction occurs more commonly in patients who already have a flat foot for other reasons. As the arch flattens, more stress is placed on the posterior tibial tendon and also on the ligaments on the inside of the foot and ankle. The result is a progressive disorder.
Depending on the cause of the flatfoot, a patient may experience one or more of the different symptoms here. Pain along the course of the posterior tibial tendon which lies on the inside of the foot and ankle. This can be associated with swelling on the inside of the ankle. Pain that is worse with activity. High intensity or impact activities, such as running, can be very difficult. Some patients can have difficulty walking or even standing for long periods of time. When the foot collapses, the heel bone may shift position and put pressure on the outside ankle bone (fibula). This can cause pain on the outside of the ankle. Arthritis in the heel also causes this same type of pain. Patients with an old injury or arthritis in the middle of the foot can have painful, bony bumps on the top and inside of the foot. These make shoewear very difficult. Occasionally, the bony spurs are so large that they pinch the nerves which can result in numbness and tingling on the top of the foot and into the toes. Diabetics may only notice swelling or a large bump on the bottom of the foot. Because their sensation is affected, people with diabetes may not have any pain. The large bump can cause skin problems and an ulcer (a sore that does not heal) may develop if proper diabetic shoewear is not used.
Starting from the knee down, check for any bowing of the tibia. A tibial varum will cause increased medial stress on the foot and ankle. This is essential to consider in surgical planning. Check the gastrocnemius muscle and Achilles complex via a straight and bent knee check for equinus. If the range of motion improves to at least neutral with bent knee testing of the Achilles complex, one may consider a gastrocnemius recession. If the Achilles complex is still tight with bent knee testing, an Achilles lengthening may be necessary. Check the posterior tibial muscle along its entire course. Palpate the muscle and observe the tendon for strength with a plantarflexion and inversion stress test. Check the flexor muscles for strength in order to see if an adequate transfer tendon is available. Check the anterior tibial tendon for size and strength.
Non surgical Treatment
Flatfoot deformity can be treated conservatively or with surgical intervention depending on the severity of the condition. When people notice their arches flattening, they should immediately avoid non-supportive shoes such as flip-flops, sandals or thin-soled tennis shoes. Theses shoes will only worsen the flatfoot deformity and exacerbate arch pain. Next, custom orthotics are essential for people with collapsed arches. Over-the-counter insoles only provide cushion and padding to the arch, whereas custom orthotics are fabricated to specifically fit the patient?s foot and provide support in the arch where the posterior tibial tendon is unable to anymore. Use of custom orthotics in the early phases of flatfoot or PTTD can prevent worsening of symptoms and prevent further attenuation or injury to the posterior tibial tendon. In more severe cases of flatfoot deformity an ankle foot orthosis (AFO) such as a Ritchie brace is needed. This brace provides more support to the arch and hindfoot rather than an orthotic but can be bulky in normal shoegear. Additional treatment along with use of custom orthotics is use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDS) such as Advil, Motrin, or Ibuprofen which can decrease inflammation to the posterior tibial tendon. If pain is severe, the patient may need to be placed in a below the knee air walker boot for several weeks which will allow the tendon to rest and heal, especially if a posterior tibial tendon tear is noted on MRI.
If conservative treatment fails to provide relief of pain and disability then surgery is considered. Numerous factors determine whether a patient is a surgical candidate. They include age, obesity, diabetes, vascular status, and the ability to be compliant with post-operative care. Surgery usually requires a prolonged period of nonweightbearing immobilization. Total recovery ranges from 3 months to one year. Clinical, x-ray, and MRI examination are all used to select the appropriate surgical procedure.